NAIROBI — Gunmen shot and killed a prominent Muslim cleric in Mombasa — the fourth religious leader to be killed in the Kenyan city in the past two years.
Police and witnesses say Sheikh Mohamed Idris, chairman of Kenya's Council of Imams and Preachers, was fatally shot in the stomach by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles as he left his house Tuesday to attend morning prayers at a nearby mosque.
The 65-year-old cleric was at the forefront of the fight against radicalization of Muslim youths in the Kenya's coastal region, and radical youths had accused him of working with the state to suppress them.
Investigators say the moderate cleric feared for his life and had been expected to testify in a Mombasa court Wednesday after filing a case against radical youths and the committee running the city's Sakina mosque for wrongful dismissal from his duties.
He had been thrown out of the mosque late last year by angry youths armed with knives. Before that, he led prayers and gave sermons at the mosque for 35 years.
No one has claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack, which follows a string of recent killings. All three Muslim leaders killed in Mombasa since 2012 were accused of having ties to al-Shabab, the al-Qaida-linked militant group based in neighboring Somalia.
Kenya has troops in Somalia fighting militants who have retaliated with attacks in Kenya, most notably the assault on Nairobi's Westgate Mall last year in which more than 60 people were killed.
Religious leaders and government officials condemned Tuesday's killing and called on the security agencies to find the killers.
Mombasa City police Commissioner Nelson Marwa said an investigation is underway.
“It will be sustained until the culprits are brought to book," Marwa said. "We want to urge the leaders, we want to urge Mombasa residents and religious leaders to be calm and to give the government a chance to do its work.”
The commissioner also called for witnesses to volunteer information that can help the police to nab the assailants.
Hassan Mohamed Idris, the son of the slain cleric, told reporters that his father lived a private life for the past five months.
“As a family we told our old man it was not nice for the Muslims to fight each other because of you," he said. "Thank God he agreed to our request and went to Likoni to stay in his house and his farm. According to our younger brother he [had] seen unknown people with vehicles driving near the farm that we do not know.”
In an interview with VOA in late May, the slain cleric said young radicals were not happy with his stand that fighting in neighboring Somalia was not jihad, or holy way. He also said the youths tormented him and other officials in the streets by calling them names.
Visiting the family of the slain cleric on Tuesday, former Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who called himself close friend of Sheikh Idris, said it is not normal for so many murders to go unresolved, with police making no arrests.
“We are asking who is carrying out these killings," he said. "Is it a devil waking up one morning and going to fire bullet at people?”
Kenya's coastal region, a tourist hub where most of the country's Muslims live, has also been hit by a series of bomb attacks on churches over the past months blamed on Islamists linked to the Somali militants.
In Mombasa last April, gunmen shot and killed radical cleric Abubaker Shariff Ahmed, also known as Makaburi, near a mosque. He was accused by the United States and United Nations of recruiting fighters and raising money for al-Shabab.
Sheikh Ibrahim Ismael was killed on a road near Mombasa in October 2013. Sheik Aboud Rogo Mohammed was killed in August 2012.
Human rights activists accused Kenyan security forces of killing the radical clerics — an allegation the government has strongly denied.
Previous shootings of clerics have sparked riots, and Sheikh Idris' brother, Ali Idris, urged people not to take the streets to protest.
"We are calling for calm ... we cannot carry out any revenge," Ali Idris said. "God will pay the killers."
Some information for this report provided by Reuters, AFP and AP.